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Review: Too-shallow 'Love is the Devil' skims Bacon's life

Web posted on: Friday, January 22, 1999 11:40:38 AM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Everything that doesn't work about "Love is the Devil: A Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon" is suggested in the movie's rambling title. Bacon (one of the more overtly twisted painters of the 20th century) is examined by writer/director John Maybury through a pensive series of anecdotes that don't really wash as biography and never really gel into a true narrative format. And the result is often just as pretentious as the movie's title.


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I'm a pretty big fan of Bacon's work, so I've spent some time considering him in the past. If you ask me, the paintings are all the clues I need into the workings of the man's apparently anxiety-racked mind. If the movie had gone ahead and been an actual portrait of the person instead of a "study" for one, it would have been much more successful.

Bacon's work overshadows movie

As it stands, it's just a bunch of sometimes interesting smears and sketches that can be easily outdistanced by a cursory glance at Bacon's lonely, forbidding canvases. Maybury and his production team have duplicated the look of those canvases in the movie's settings, but that's the high point of "Love is the Devil."

Derek Jacobi plays Bacon, and he issues his usual exemplary performance. Once again, he's got the look. Bacon was a squat, intensely bulldog-ish man who favored tacky hair coloring, rouge, and eyeliner over the more readily-accepted natural look. His insatiable homosexuality -- at a time when that insatiability was an open invitation for abuse -- informs many of Bacon's paintings, and serves as the basis for most of what goes on in the film.

The majority of the story follows Francis' desperate relationship with George Dyer (Daniel Craig), a young thief who winds up in bed with the painter after breaking into his studio to rob him. The two men then spend seven years in a mentally abusive tug-of-war that seems doomed from the start.

Bacon is portrayed as something of a drunken, drugged-out raconteur, but a lot of his yarns lean strongly towards mocking his friends and lovers. Aside from the fact that they, too, are generally self-wasted, it's never explained how such a man could have so many loving companions.

Sarcasm, bile poor substitutes for anguish

Bacon's estate, unfortunately, wouldn't allow Maybury to use any of his actual paintings in the film, so this lack of artful anguish is replaced with heavy doses of bile and sarcasm. We've seen movies about artists before that play up the painter/writer/actor's proud lack of social skills. Geniuses are apparently all nasty jerks, and there are only a couple of moments in "Love is the Devil" to suggest that Bacon was any different.

Those moments are nice, though. One or two scenes between Jacobi and Craig are downright homey in their domesticity. You can certainly sense the love between the two; you just never get to see how it was generated or why Bacon suddenly decides that he's had enough of it. In fact, you don't see how much of anything about Bacon was generated.

A person doesn't develop an artistic sensibility that's so informed by the awful sensuality of violence just because he's a mean drunk and a homosexual. Bacon's best works suggest magic mushroom-inspired autopsies. Most of his subjects don't even look comfortable sitting in a chair; they often cradle their heads in their hands, or their arms twist around their torsos like they're trying to keep away the chill of death.

You can gobble up all the one-night-stands and pills that you want, but this kind of imagery springs from a place that's wholly missing from the film.

Even without the actual paintings, though, the imagery itself is still there. Maybury continually inserts quick fantasy moments that resemble David Lynch's ominously rumbling nightmare flashes. One, in which a nude man (who's apparently covered in blood) crouches and tumbles off of a diving board into utter blackness, is disturbing, but gets marched out way too often.

The image is right, but we don't know what it means or where it's coming from. You'd be much better off with a compilation of Bacon prints. When it comes to something so visual, you're probably going to get further by doing your own thinking anyway.

"Love is the Devil" is full of gay sex, tastefully presented and otherwise. There's profanity and intense drinking and drugging. If you don't already know something about Francis Bacon and his work, you really won't have much of an idea about him when the movie is over. Rated R. 90 minutes.

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